Most journalists strive to write the “definitive piece,” an article so thoroughly researched and reported that it becomes the standard for a particular subject. John McPhee has been writing definitive pieces most of his life, and he offers us a sampling in his new book, Silk Parachute.
After reading an essay by McPhee, you feel you have gained a deep understanding of the topic. Consider “Spin Right and Shoot Left,” an essay about lacrosse, in which McPhee covers not only the history of the game, but all its rules and strategies. When you’ve finished reading, you feel ready to pick up a lacrosse stick and run onto the field. The experience is similar with “Checkpoints,” about fact-checking at The New Yorker. The essay leaves you impressed with the editors’ attention to detail and gives you an insider’s look at magazine publishing.
Many of the essays in Silk Parachute have appeared previously in The New Yorker, where McPhee has been a staff writer since 1965. Over those 45 years, he has written hundreds of essays, many of which have been compiled in one of his 28 books. His body of work includes Annals of the Former World, his authoritative book on geology that won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1999.
Clearly, McPhee is a master of his trade, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s accustomed to writing the definitive piece. Yet Silk Parachute also offers a personal side of this accomplished author. In the book’s title essay, McPhee recounts his boyhood memories of his 99-year-old mother, while in “Season on the Chalk,” he relates travels with his family along the English Channel. “Nowheres” is an account of his life in Princeton, New Jersey, where he was born, and where he now resides.
Silk Parachute offers an eclectic sampling from an accomplished author who is as comfortable writing about the intricacies of impersonal topics as he is sharing the intimacies of his personal life.
John T. Slania is a journalism professor at Loyola University in Chicago.